The steady transformation of the Republican Party into a Nixonian Party has had a sixty-year run. The neoconservatives, religious political extremists, and followers of Richard Nixon have secured their control over the Grand Old Party. Much of their success has been through the use of McCarthyism and its modifications under campaign strategists like Karl Rove, Lee Atwater, and Roger Ailes.
McCarthyism is essentially using the Big Lie to defeat your opponent so you can achieve power. There are two general rules: (1) the bigger the lie the better because it is harder for your victim to defend against, and (2) the more you repeat the lie the more likely it will be believed and become the “truth.”
Initially, it was used during the early Cold War by Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-WI) and others who accused individuals of being disloyal to the United States. President George W. Bush blatantly used it in the congressional elections of 2006. He campaigned for his rubber-stamp supporters by saying that “a vote for the Democrats is a vote for the terrorists.” Most voters didn’t fall for it, and that’s the most encouraging sign we’ve seen in six years. Now he’s saying that those who oppose his disastrous Iraq campaign are “betraying our troops.”
Richard Nixon pioneered the use of the Big Lie in American politics in 1946. He tricked enough voters into thinking his Democratic opponent, Congressman Jerry Voorhis, was a communist. Nixon pointed out that Voorhis had voted for numerous programs that were endorsed by the Communist Party. It was “guilt by association.” Voorhis had indeed supported social security and a minimum wage, but Voorhis’ support for them did not make him a communist. Unfortunately, Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives.
McCarthyism has evolved over the years. When George H. W. Bush ran for President in 1988 he utilized the “talents” of Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes. They believed that the best way to win an election was to drive up the negative perceptions of the opponent. As Reagan’s vice-president, the senior Bush was tainted by the Iran-Contra Scandal, and Democratic candidate Gov. Michael Dukakis (Mass.) had an early 17-point lead in the polls. They had to destroy Dukakis’s image so that Bush would seem the lesser of two evils.
The most memorable and effective of the many lies used against Dukakis were the Willie Horton ads. Horton was a black convicted murderer who raped a white woman while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison. Bush, Atwater, and Ailes knew that Dukakis had nothing to do with Horton or the furlough plan. Also, they knew the furlough plan had been initiated by Dukakis’s Republican predecessor. None of that mattered. The imaginary Dukakis-Horton connection was used throughout the campaign. George H. W. Bush won.
When Lee Atwater, who claimed to be a devout Christian, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, he sent out letters of apology to Dukakis and others he had lied about throughout his rather shabby career. Roger Ailes went on to become the head honcho of what appears to be the Republican Party’s propaganda network on cable TV, Fox “News.”
Karl Rove, “the Architect” of the two Bush-Cheney elections, mastered the teachings of Nixon, McCarthy, Atwater, and Ailes. In 2000 he deceived many voters into thinking that Al Gore – one of the most capable, knowledgeable, and intelligent persons ever to run for President – was some kind of nut. In 2004 he even got some voters to question the war record of a certified hero – John Kerry – and added “swift-boated” to our vocabulary.
One of my favorite trivia questions is “Did Al Gore ever say he invented the Internet?” The answer is “No.” But that lie was told so many times that most people still believe he actually made the claim. Gore did say he sponsored legislation that helped lead to the development of the Internet, and that led to the deliberate distortion of what he said and meant.
If repeated often enough, the Big Lie “becomes” the truth. The mistake that Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry made was in not responding quickly and often to the lies used against them. The attitude of “I won’t dignify that lie with a comment” will not work!
In 1963, actor Paul Newman portrayed a Texas scoundrel named Hud, who liked to dress up, drive his Cadillac convertible into town, strut his stuff, and get into fights he could easily have avoided. “Hud” was based on a novel by Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove”) and, interestingly, was directed by Martin Ritt. Ritt had been blacklisted by the television industry during the 1950’s McCarthy Era, but he was still allowed to work in movies. Probably not by coincidence, the film co-starred veteran actor Melvin Douglas as Hud’s father, rancher Homer Bannon. Douglas’s wife was former Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas (D-CA), who was Nixon’s victim in his Senate race in 1950. Nixon smeared her as “the Pink Lady,” again because of her so-called “communist” voting record. It was she who dubbed Nixon as “Tricky Dick” – the name was earned, and it stuck.
In the film, Hud wanted to sell off potentially diseased cows before buyers or the government found out. “You’re an unprincipled man,” Homer told him. What really troubled the old man was not only that his son didn’t care about anything or anybody except himself, but that his grandson Lon – Hud’s nephew – worshipped him and wanted to be like him. Homer feared for future generations of impressionable youths: “Little by little the look of the country changes according to those whom we admire.”
Brandon De Wilde is best remembered as the little boy Joey in the great 1953 western “Shane.” Joey loved the truly heroic Shane, the gunfighter-turned-farmhand superbly played by Alan Ladd. It was Shane who finally faced the ranchers to defend the homesteaders. At the end of the film, Shane told Joey to go home and tell his mother there were no more guns in the valley. Shane encouraged Joey to grow up to be strong and principled like his parents, and then he rode away up into the hills. Joey spoke for all of us as he hollered after him, “Shane, come back.”
Ten years later, Mr. De Wilde appeared as the 17-year-old Lon who realized even before his grandfather’s death that his uncle Hud was a cold and selfish opportunist who cared nothing about the consequences of his actions. This time it was he who was leaving, and it was Hud who hollered after him, “You can always come back and work for me.” Lon responded, “I won’t be back this way;” and thus he rejected a life of cynicism and irresponsibility. In November 2008, we were finally able vote for replacements for our diabolical Bush-Cheney co-presidents and their fellow Nixonians. Hopefully, we won’t ever be back this way again.
by David Offutt
This is a slightly revised version of an essay that was published May 5, 2007, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.